Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid not wrong at all about Sixers’ ‘toughness’ deficit

Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid not wrong at all about Sixers' 'toughness' deficit

There’s rarely unanimous agreement on what went wrong as players let elimination sink in.

That was true Thursday night following the Sixers’ Game 6 defeat at Wells Fargo Center to the Heat.

For most teams, finishing short of a championship boils down to some combination of factors within players’ control and outside of it. Though the Sixers fall under that broad umbrella, candid comments about the controllables jumped out.

Not for the first time, head coach Doc Rivers raised the topic of the Heat’s superior physicality. Tyrese Maxey thought the Sixers didn’t match Miami’s “fight.” And Tobias Harris went further in his postgame media session. With a voice still hoarse after he absorbed Game 4 contact to the throat by Heat big man Bam Adebayo, Harris explained why he believes the Sixers can’t crack the second round.

“Mental toughness,” he said. “I think so. Just mental toughness. That part of it, I don’t think we have yet. Seeing the Milwaukee game yesterday (against the Celtics), that’s a team that’s been through the fire, being able to fight and keep going. At times for our group, too many things just affected us as a whole. We drop our heads too much. Our body language at times is crappy. We needed that to be better throughout this series. And I think that hurt us in this series.

“Our mental toughness for sure hurt us against that group. And they did a lot of things to kind of challenge that — the hustle plays, the 50-50 basketballs, everything. The physicality by them, as well. We needed to be better as a collective group at just holding our head and just fighting, just going right back at it. And I don’t think we did a great job of that.”

Harris’ comments aren’t absurdly off the mark. The Sixers did respond nicely at times this year to losses that would have deflated other teams. They didn’t crumble during a challenging, strange Ben Simmons trade saga. And they found ways to win big games revolving around the sun of Joel Embiid, their MVP runner-up center who certainly exhibited “toughness” in missing just two postseason games during a playoff campaign in which he suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb, a concussion, and a right orbital fracture.

But the Sixers had significant moments in which focus, intensity, and other old-fashioned intangibles were huge problems. They lost Game 5 of the Miami series by 35 points and something similar might have been on the table if not for a strong individual second half by Shake Milton in Game 6.

The team trailed by 20 points at one stage and allowed the Heat to grab seven more offensive rebounds in the game (13-6). Whenever the Sixers hinted at a run, Jimmy Butler pushed that idea out of the picture.

“It’s not simple to fix,” Harris said. “But I think it just comes with the intent. Every man to himself, the intent you go into the game with, the energy you come into the game with. I think that’s a huge part of it.

“And that’s something that I will say, throughout this year, we’ve shown in many games how great we can be. And we’ve shown when things are good, how mentally tough we are. I think on the flip side of that, we didn’t do a great job of that when things weren’t going our way.”

Obviously, much of the Sixers’ loss can be attributed to issues with skill and luck. Embiid’s injuries made a massive impact. And the minimal time to integrate James Harden doesn’t account for every aspect of his scoreless Game 6 second halfbut the circumstances — 33 total games for the 10-time All-Star in his first year with the team, and at less than 100 percent health — do matter there.

Georges Niang, a fiery, trash-talking bench forward Rivers had referred to as the team’s “emotional leader” this year, suited up with an injured left knee and was far from his regular-season self. Across defeats in Games 1, 5 and 6, Niang shot 0 for 14 from three-point range in 53 minutes and scored no points.

As for Harris, he committed to defensive improvement and adapting his game after Harden’s arrival to include more catch-and-shoot three-pointers and complementary contributions.

But the reality is Harris doesn’t resemble Butler in terms of being world-class at will himself wherever he wants to go on the court. Harris made an and-one layup in the fourth quarter of Game 2. From that point on in the series, he attempted 50 field goals and zero free throws.

Embiid identified physicality and rebounding as problematic. Indeed, the Sixers were last in offensive rebounding percentage this season, for Cleaning the Glass. Avoiding turnovers and drawing foul shots appeared to be key aspects of their identity without Simmons, largely because they often lost the rebounding battle and were short on genuinely disruptive defenders that could knock opposing offenses out of their preferred actions.

Embiid didn’t evade the question of whether the Sixers need to add toughness.

“For sure,” he said. “We had a few tough guys since I’ve been here that I can recall, whether it’s Mike Scott … he didn’t play a lot of minutes. But when you have size and toughness, that goes a long way. You look at someone like PJ Tucker — great player, but it’s not about him knocking down shots. It’s about (the other things) he does, whether it’s on the defensive end or rebounding the ball. You look at (him) defensively, he plays with so much energy. He believes that he can get from Point A to Point B, and he believes that no one can beat him.

“And he’s tough. He’s just physical and he’s tough. They have a few of those guys, whether it’s Bam and all those guys. And since I’ve been here, I would be lying if I said that we’ve had those type of guys. Nothing against what we have, it’s just the truth. We never have PJ Tucker; that’s really what I’m trying to say. So I think physicality, especially once you get to the playoffs or the later rounds, you need that. You need those guys that are really tough.”

Again, the Sixers are grappling with uncomfortable questions for an infinite number of reasons.

But yes, Harris and Embiid made compelling cases Thursday night that toughness was an integral one.

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